Bernie Glassman

Homelessness, Auschwitz, and Zen

Bernie-foto-Joan-HalifaxBernard Glassman was born in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, New York in 1939. He attended university at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and received a degree in engineering. Following graduation he moved to California to work as an aeronautical engineer at McDonnell-Douglas. He then received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Glassman first encountered Zen when he was assigned Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man for an English class in 1958. From there, he continued reading including books by Alan Watts, Christmas Humphreys, and D.T. Suzuki. In the early 1960s, Glassman began meditating and soon after sought a local Zen teacher. He found Taizan Maezumi in Los Angeles, California and Glassman became one of the original founding members of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. He received Dharma transmission in 1976 from Maezumi and then inka in 1995 shortly before Maezumi’s death.

In 1982 Glassman opened Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, New York, an effort to help alleviate the widespread homelessness in the area. The bakery provided jobs for inner city residents who lacked education and skills. The proceeds helped to fund what he called the Zen Community of New York, who in turn would transform condemned or old buildings into new housing areas for the homeless. He employed low-skilled workers from the neighborhood, many of whom were homeless themselves, and sold his baked goods to shops and restaurants in Manhattan. In 1989 he entered an agreement with Ben & Jerry’s, and Greyston Bakery has become the supplier of brownies for several lines of ice cream.

Through the success of his bakery—which today brings in revenues of $3.5 million annually, Glassman then founded the Greyston Foundation (sometimes called Greyston Mandala) with his wife Sandra Jishu Holmes. He retired from the Greyston Foundation in 1996 to pursue his desire for international peace efforts (i.e. Zen Peacemaker Circle). As of 2004 the Foundation had developed $35 million worth in real estate development projects in Westchester County, New York. The Foundation offers HIV/AIDS programs, provides job training and housing, childcare services, educational opportunities, and other endeavors. In 2003 the bakery moved to a new building, which allows for higher output more employment opportunities.

In 1996 Glassman, with his wife Sandra Jishu Holmes, founded the Zen Peacemaker Order (today the Zen Peacemaker Circle) to focus on the integration of spiritual practice and social action. According to professor Christopher S. Queen, “The order is based on three principles: plunging into the unknown, bearing witness to the pain and joy of the world, and a commitment to heal oneself and the world.” Richard Hughes Seager writes, “The Zen Peacemaker Order…has the potential to rival Thich Nhat Hanh’s groups and the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as a force in American activism.”

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By Bernie Glassman